This one is for the nerds. I mean, for real. If sci-fi movies were plentiful in the ‘90s, they weren’t too kind to the nerds, who were often side or comic relief characters who advised the actual protagonists on the rules of the baffling situations they found themselves in.
The subgenre of alien movies was in an interesting place then too. For a country that hadn’t been subjected to a horrific, traumatizing attack on its own soil since Pearl Harbor, they were a good way to provide moviegoers with an elusive enemy that posed a credible threat. If aliens weren’t outright blowing up the White House, they were literal invaders of humanity, taking over our bodies, minds, and sometimes, being the butt of the joke, even if they managed to off a President.
Enter the 1997 movie Contact, which took aliens seriously while respecting them, albeit from a distance. It’s a true rarity, especially for its time: It features a female scientist without focusing too much on her love interest or children she may or may not have. Here’s why you need to watch this sci-fi gem now that it’s streaming on HBO Max.
Directed by Robert Zemekis, Contact follows Dr. Eleanor “Ellie” Arroway (Jodie Foster), who spent years listening to radio transmissions from space to find evidence of extraterrestrial life. When she finally finds something, it kicks off an unexpected but philosophical journey about what it means to not be alone in the universe.
While Ellie may not need a love interest, she still gets a hot love interest with his own complexities in Matthew McConaughey’s Palmer Joss. McConaughey had only recently become one of the most bankable actors in Hollywood, having risen to prominence in films such as Dazed and Confused and A Time to Kill in 1993 and 1996, respectively. Joss, a religious philosopher, may not define Ellie’s arc, but he plays off of her well, providing the voice of faith to Ellie’s rationalism, what with his religious background and his lack of desire to even live in a world without god.
The true conflict of Contact, which partially plays out between Ellie and Joss, might be the struggle for faith and meaning in an increasingly technological, isolating world. Ellie is a natural skeptic and scientist who was using her radio to seek out the unknown at age nine. She quickly developed an interest and a career in searching for extraterrestrial life, much to the chagrin of her colleagues, who aren’t too interested in taking her seriously.
Ellie’s colleagues not taking her seriously might as well be the film’s most prominent subplot rather than any blossoming romantic relationship. Even after Ellie discovers and decodes a signal sent from aliens, she has to fight for her place in the room every step of the way, from her own lab to an actual seat at the table in the White House once the world learns of her findings.
As the film unabashedly proclaims, those findings also have unavoidable religious implications once it’s revealed that beings beyond the stars and our understanding exist. Contact’s commitment to realism puts the science front and center while keeping humanity’s reaction to the discovery of intelligent life on other worlds sometimes painfully recognizable. There’s the mass exodus of people to the desert where Ellie first makes her discovery, which is full of characters, some dressed as Elvis, others selling UFO abduction insurance, various spiritual ceremonies, and most terrifyingly, a religious extremist who will later commit an act of terrorism.
This commitment to the best and worst of what humanity is capable of, which walks the very fine line of doing justice to so many perspectives while pandering to none, is probably why Contact leaves an impression of a group of people who got together to tell a great story. Foster doesn’t just have supporting turns from the likes of John Hurt, Tom Skerritt, Angela Bassett, Rob Lowe, William Fichtner, and Jena Malone in one of her first roles. There are cameos from the pundits of the day, with Jay Leno and Larry King making appearances as themselves, along with footage of then-President Bill Clinton expertly inserted and edited to seem as if he was speaking about the events of the film.
The presence of Carl Sagan might explain some of it. The author of the 1985 novel that he and his wife Ann Druyan also helped adapt for the screen, he was primarily known as the host of the long-running series Cosmos, one of the most-watched shows in public television history. A highly decorated, award-winning scientist who was also a publicly adored celebrity, Sagan died in 1996 before Contact premiered, and it speaks to his prominence that the film’s dedication reads, “For Carl.”
Sagan’s spirit certainly comes through in the film, which makes a point of valuing scientific exploration for its own sake rather than a means to an end. And like many a scientific journey, its endpoint leaves Ellie with more questions than answers, with even the aliens themselves unsure of many elements of the bigger picture, which is more dependent on faith than Ellie ever could have dreamed. She returns to Earth with no proof of what she’s seen and experienced, yet firmly sticking to her story. Her resulting grilling by an all-male set of interrogators raises painful echoes of the 1991 Anita Hill hearings, which also saw a disbelieving group of men refusing to take a woman seriously.
Ellie, however, always remains more than her obstacles, and she’s never depicted as anything less for her search for truth always taking precedence. The film's last shot has her sans love interest or company of any kind but always retaining that state of wonder that ultimately drives her.
Contact is now streaming on HBO Max.